The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

O Brothers, Where Art Thou? Santa Monica, it turns out.

I’m walking around the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and there’s something about all these people around me. They might have an awkward gait, like they grew into a body that was slightly taller or shorter than intended. There’s thinning hair that doesn’t behave, and clothes that don’t fit quite perfectly. I see a unibrow, pot bellies, frequent dark circles under the eyes. This might sound normal to you, but you must understand that Los Angeles County has an ordinance that requires a devastatingly beautiful person every fifty feet, planted like palm trees along our grand boulevards. These people, by their conspicuous imperfection, seem peculiar.

But as I look around these faces – some odd, some worried, some sly – I realize that these are the people who wrote those brilliant characters that won an Oscar or an Emmy for some star. These are the people who wrote that talk show joke that made you sound so clever the next day. These are the people who dream up new ways for dead bodies to tell the stories of their murder, these are the people who tell Jack Bauer which blunt or sharp instrument to use to Save America. These are Hollywood’s neurons – these are the writers.

I’ve been a Guild member for just over three years now, but I confess I’ve never quite felt like I belonged. I pay my dues, read the newsletter, I danced at the Holiday Party. I went to an afternoon Scrabble game at Guild headquarters and got trounced (word to the wise – these people have crazy vocabularies). But unlike most of the people in the room, I’ve never had anything produced. The screenplay I sold is in development limbo, the one I optioned has been gummed up by the strike, and my new spec, the one everyone loves, is just going to have to wait to go to buyers. There will be no greenlights for Christmas. I’ve never worked a studio assignment, never been “good in a room”. My last meeting was six months ago. Most of the time I feel like I just got lucky, and sooner or later someone’s going to figure out I don’t belong here.

But for the moment they still let me in. This is a closed membership meeting to discuss the progress of the strike, how we can help out during the holidays, and the agenda for the first couple of weeks of 2008 – assuming the studios continue their scorched-earth course by refusing to negotiate. The auditorium lobby is filled with trays of cookies. While I’m picking up one, another writer makes a joke about it. I come back with another joke and he smiles and walks away. And three minutes later I’ve put the finishing touches on a MUCH BETTER joke about the cookie, and wish someone would set me up again. This is what we do.

Some of us are “networking”. This is a finely-honed ritual of communication, in which we improvise seemingly-casual conversations that are nonetheless strategically-designed to figure out who the other guy knows, and if he’s heard about any work, while hoping that they don’t turn out to be a name-dropper, because everyone hates name-droppers. Everyone has Blackberries, and business cards with goofy logos; if we must socialize, we have decided, at least let it be productive.

It’s against our instincts to gather in such a large group. Writers are skeptics by nature, not zealots. We’re not joiners. It takes awhile for the front rows of seats to fill up. All around I can recognize our common strand of DNA – if you don’t have it you might not know how to see it. Call it a sense of discomfort with the world, call it an overactive brain, call it a defiant misfit streak; everyone in this room has that thing inside that inspired us to stand back from life, and observe, and make it our habit to gather and store all these thoughts and feelings and details until they reached a critical boiling mass that NEEDED to be expelled onto paper.

I say this not to denigrate my own kind, but as a way to underline what we all sense in this room. The issue we face now supersedes all our loveable little neuroses and clannish tendencies. Put us on a studio lot with an open staff job on a successful one-hour and we might shiv each other over it, with our agents taking bets; but here, tonight, we all know that what we’re facing is much bigger. We’re not just fighting for our individual piece right now – we’re fighting for everyone who wants to write here, everyone who will write here for the generation to come. We didn’t choose this moment, but it’s here, and it’s brought this group of fussy, brilliant loners out into a rainy December night by the thousands. It’s got us giving more standing ovations to our board and negotiators than a State of the Union Address.

There are speeches, some rousing, some sobering. There are financial figures and legalese tossed around. There are questions; some contentious, some rambling, some incendiary, some hilarious. As each speaker introduces themselves, I flash back to seeing their name on some screen somewhere, attached to a story I’ve loved. Up there on the stage are people like Stephen Gaghan, the writer of Traffic and writer/director of Syriana; Susannah Grant, the writer of Erin Brockovich; Bill Condon, writer of Chicago and writer/director of Gods and Monsters and Kinsey; Ron Bass, writer of Rain Man; Carl Gottlieb, writer of Jaws. And that doesn’t even include all the TV writers (sorry, all you geniuses, I’m a feature writer and am staying that way). These are the people who make the films that inspire me, that torment me every day by being so damned good that I wonder, if I sweat and think and type my whole life, maybe I can come up with just one script that’s half as good as their worst. They are the reason I am here, and they’re calling me “brother”.

And there’s our President, Patric Verrone, a former Tonight Show writer who found his way into TV animation, and has written for The Simpsons, The Critic, Pinky and the Brain, and most famously as one of the supervising producers of Futurama, which had the brainiest staff of writers ever assembled for one TV show, with the possible exception of when Harlan Ellison writes alone.

The AMPTP has tried to paint Verrone as some kind of fire-breathing radical, but one look at the earnest, self-deprecating man at the center chair, with his squared-off hair part and quiet delivery, shows just how silly this is.

Writers are imaginative, and as one member says, “we’re worriers”. If you catch us alone and give us something to worry about, we’ll run with it. But for this thing, this pivotal moment in our history in this business, we’re together, and the studios have underestimated us. They’re running a playbook that’s been honed for decades – divide and conquer, smear and stonewall, work the press, cynically court false hopes then dash them. Throw people out on the streets for economic blackmail. Cut off their noses to spite their faces. But what they don’t get is this – this is what we do. Seeing where storylines go is our business. Connecting the dots is our talent. Figuring out what action will alter the outcome is how we earn our living.

To put it bluntly – we know what you’re up to, Buster.

Standing here in this room, you can see why we’ve got them so riled up. In their fairy tale world of unlimited beauty and unlimited money and unlimited power, we writers – we messy, imperfect, questioning, truth-seeking writers – must seem like the Troll under the Bridge, and they hate us. They hate us because they need us for their world to exist, and after decades of trying they still can’t get rid of us. They can’t get rid of us with computer programs, or bullying, or “reality television”, or even by saying “Beetlejuice” three times.

Content is King, they say. Well, we dream up the content, the best content in the world. That makes us Kingmakers. And we don’t ask for genuflection, or fame. Most of us will never be rich. We just want to do what we do, get our name up there for doing it, and be able to have enough of a sliver of the billions they rake in to keep roofs over our heads.

That’s why we’re united now. We want to work. We want to write. We want, from our anonymous little rooms scattered around LA and New York, to start entertaining you again. And we’ll do what it takes, short of dragging them back in burlap sacks, to get the AMPTP to negotiate with us so we can do just that.


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